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ISEE Integrative Science Group

The Integrative Science group works to synthesize the findings of the physical and social science teams to understand the interactions of communities and the physical environment and seek lessons for how communities in environmentally stressed areas can learn to adapt to change and develop sustainable livelihoods.

Water Security

Water security (reliable access to safe drinking water) depends not only on the physical quantity and bio-chemical quality of water, but also on the social, economic, and political conditions that control access to water. Water security is often measured at a national scale, and usually fails to consider either regional variations within a nation or seasonal variations over the year. Bangladesh, and other nations whose rainfall is characterized by a strong monsoon climate, access to drinking water can vary substantially over the year. Our team has studied the limitations of major water-security indices (Gunda, Benneyworth, and Burchfield, 2015, Water Policy17: 98-111). We have also compared measurements of water quality (salinity, arsenic concentration, etc.) to household surveys about people's perceptions of water quality and their experience of the difficulty of obtaining water for drinking and cooking (Benneyworth et al., 2016. Int. J. Environ. Health Res. advance online publication These studies found that although at a national scale, Bangladesh reports that 86 percent of the population has reliable access to safe drinking water (very close to its Millennium Development Goal of 89%), in the Southwest region only around 30 percent of the population has reliable access to safe drinking water and in some rural communities the number may be less than 15 percent.

Tidal River Management

In the 1920s and 1930s, it was common knowledge among engineers working in Bengal that attempting to control floods by building embankments would backfire and make flood risks even worse in the long run because embankments would interrupt the natural flow of sediment, starving the land of sediment while raising river levels as silt deposited in the beds. This work was neglected or forgotten in the 1950s when the United Nations Krug Mission Report recommended that Bangladesh emulate the Netherlands and pursue a program of surrounding islands and low-lying areas in the coastal region with a system of embankments, commonly called "polders" after the Dutch term. This coastal embankment project was implemented in the 1960s and 70s, and by the late 1980s the predictions from the 1920s and 30s were fulfilled. Low-lying areas, called "Beels" had sunk so low that monsoon rainwater could not drain effectively into the rivers, so the land became waterlogged and could not be used productively for agriculture or even aquaculture. In the early 1990s, grass-roots activism by local communities revived traditional practices by creating temporary breaches in embankments along tidal channels so that the natural tidal prism could spill onto the land, depositing new sediment where it was needed and excavating unwanted sediment from the river beds. Within a few years, rivers became more navigable and waterlogging became a much smaller problem. This practice was labelled Tidal River Management (TRM). However, when the Government of Bangladesh, with funding from the Asian Development Bank, attempted to apply Tidal River Management in the 2000s, the results were much poorer. Communities resisted the projects and waterlogging persisted for many years after TRM projects were established.

We are using field work together with computational modeling of sediment dynamics to study both the physical and engineering feasibility of TRM and also the social and political conditions that determine when TRM initiatives are likely to be successful and when they are likely to fail. One part of this project has developed a simplified model of sediment transport that we are using to study how well Tidal River Management can manage not just waterlogging, but also sea level rise.

Database Development

We are integrating data from the physical and social science teams into a large database with a web-based interactive GIS (geographical information system) interface. This tool will facilitate exploratory integrative data analysis and the preservation and archiving of data produced during this project.